Not very long ago, as part of my Alternative Mythologies series, I talked about how Egyptian lore was actually a fairly good resource to be used for the fantasy genre. Lo and behold, not long after I posted it, there were suddenly multiple projects being set in Egypt and a lot of them turned out to be… horrible. A lot of reasons have been suggested over time but what I’ve started to realize is that there’s a reason overlooked heavily by most people because most people just don’t know the source material very well. By knowing the source material, you start to realize that people aren’t catching the real reason why these projects suck, and the most recent attempt really drove it home for me.
Gods of Egypt, to almost no one’s surprise, turned out to be a critical failure and a box office bomb. The trailers were poorly received, the promotional material was left wanting, the casting drew criticism from almost square one, and nothing they really did from then on out really made it any better. In the several months since this movie’s promotion started I have yet to see a single positive article about the thing. But even there, I don’t think any of them actually noticed the reason why this thing was doomed to fail.
Most people quickly jumped on the skin-tone of the actors (and quite rightly, given the majority of the cast looked more pseudo-Greek than anything). But I’ve already covered the white washing of Egypt in the past and the fact that Egyptians could have, in part, featured a diverse range of skin-tones (…though clearly not the North European ones that apparently dominate casting calls). Others jumped on the fact that it didn’t seem to fit the mythology, what with Ra having a ship in space that flew over the planet during the daytime. Just, one problem for those guys, Ra totally did.
So while these are valid concerns to be had, they weren’t the thing that immediately jumped out at me as the reason this thing was doomed from the start. No, the thing that jumped out at me and started to make me really question whether I was right to recommend Horus’ story as a great source of fantasy adaptations, was the fact that I came to realize that this:
Was pretty much built on the same model as this:
And that’s kind of the root of all their problems…
Blinded By Ignorance
Some years ago, before the nostalgia era began to reign supreme, a studio took a bit of a gamble on the idea of adapting a cartoon that had pretty much a niche fanbase from the 80s but was known to sell toys like crazy. After all, back in the 80s and 00s we saw George Lucas prove that movies can make more money through merchandising if you had the right property, so it wasn’t hard to see why a studio would want to do it. As a result, the first blockbuster adaptation of a pure nostalgia property came to be: Transformers.
The first one wasn’t horrible but you would be hard pressed to say it was great. The fact of the matter is, a lot of the movie was based in flash and spectacle and little else. The characters were bland at best, insulting at worst, and a lot of what was being adapted wasn’t exactly recognizable to the people who it was supposedly targeted at. This wasn’t a problem for most of the viewing audience, but for the fanbase of the franchise it was something a lot of them soon rejected. But the world at large gave Transformers a pass because they didn’t recognize that these characters were hollow representations of what they were based on. In fact, many people would consider the Transformers almost unimportant to the film, little more than a crazy special effect that made for something more interesting than just a simple explosion.
But as the franchise wore on and certain human characters began to overstay their welcome, the fact that the core of the franchise was almost purely hollow began to show through. As of just the first sequel, people were already beginning to question the value of the transformers themselves to their own franchise and by the latest one you could excuse people for wondering what the point to any of them would be. And all of this is a result of what I’ve come to consider the Bay method of adaptations.
The first step of the Bay method of adaptations is to take the original material and strip it down for parts. You don’t need the plotline from it, or deep knowledge of the characters, just the different elements that you can catch from the franchise with a quick glance. Red truck man is apparently Jesus? Check. Yellow car is the closest to humans? Check. Villain is snarly and silver plated? Check! All of these can be refined and distilled into their purest forms and promptly turned into a mess of color and lights with CGI.
Then, you take those parts and reassemble them together into a slapdash cookie cutter plot (that doesn’t even necessarily have to make sense). Now, you’d think that would be a horrible product, and you’d be right. But to make sure people don’t notice right away you’ll put together a simple plot based around another character who can act as your window character, the person whose POV is easiest for the audience to understand. What do we generally get? Screaming idiot with few redeeming traits.
And to complete the set, after gluing together this Frankenstein’s monster of a plot, go ahead and throw up as many explosions and impressive set pieces as you can to distract the audience for as long as possible. The longer you avoid them actually paying attention to the plot, the better you’re going to do in the end. Oh, and while you’re at it, throw in some eye candy so that the only visual the audience retains (since the rest will be like a snowglobe full of legos being glued to the end of a shakeweight) is something like this:
Boom, you’ve just made a successful adaptation.
Provided you follow this, you really don’t need to have any respect for the original source material and you can really adapt anything with minimal effort. Think of all the films that have tried to cash in on nostalgia and consider how many of these hold true. In fact, even with the most recent Bay adaptation (though he was merely a producer that time) they followed the formula to a T and gave us a TMNT movie that really didn’t have any of the charm of any of the half dozen interpretations the characters have had over the last 20 years.
You look at that and you’ll find the same formula is basically built into its DNA. Characters reduced to little more than a fancy visual effect and the most superficial elements of their underlying character. The story centers on their human companion that is generally a witness to their whirlwind of colors and grunts that happens during every action scene. That human companion (to streamline it) is even the exact same eye-candy!
And the worst part is that this formula doesn’t actually work at making good movies, it never has. The only reason any of them ever succeed is because nostalgia or a young fanbase have driven them to pay good money to be disappointed. Children and their parents are used to buying overpriced plastic bullshit, so Bay just managed to tap into that market on a larger scale.
The problems with this model really start to show themselves when you apply it to something else. Battleship was a trainwreck that never should have been made because there wasn’t really much going for it so they applied the Bay model and ended up with a literal battleship acting as their Optimus Prime. Some superhero adaptations as of late have done it as well, with Fantastic Four coming to mind where all of the characters hardly looked like who they were supposed to. And the most horrible example would have to be Pixels, because… Pixels.
But what Gods of Egypt represents is the first time that this method has been applied to a mythology. The story of Horus is a story of someone being raised in exile and returning to their homeland to take back what was rightfully theirs. We should have seen Horus standing front and center of this story and it should have been a story we could recognize. But even a simple glance at the summaries will tell you that Gods of Egypt is not really Horus’ story (and, in fact, gets almost all of the details of Horus’ story wrong). No, Gods of Egypt is the story of Bek, a mortal who happens to help Horus out.
Now the question a lot of you may be asking yourself is: who is Bek? Well the answer is… Bek is nobody, Bek is the Egyptian everyman, and Bek is supposed to stand in as the surrogate for you. You see, according to the Bay method of adaptations, you need to have a regular person standing in the adventures in order to make any emotional attachments (especially since anything not human is a mess of CG). So Bek is there to be the regular guy who helps out and grabs the movie’s McGuffin – something else these movies also tend to have. In Transformers it was the Allspark, the Matrix of Leadership, and any sense of a plot. In Gods of Egypt, it’s Horus’ eyes – both of them. And as for what Horus looks like when he’s not a blind white guy?
There’s your CG mess. And as for the attractive women to make the male audience forget they’re watching shit?
So the reason why Gods of Egypt is so Gods of Awful is that it really doesn’t respect the source material at all. They were stripped down and used as props for a story, much like transformers in the past. You’re not watching the story of Horus vs Set, you’re watching Bek helping Horus fight Set. Ra wasn’t even involved in most versions of this story, yet there he is on his boat in the sky. Why? Because it would have been cool. And Isis, Horus’ mother? I’ve yet to see her in any of the promotional materials or summaries. This doesn’t seem like a huge loss until you realize that Isis was a key player in the original story. So what you have here is a production completely devoid of respect for the original material, an adaption which really uses the original material as set dressing for a lazy script based on a formula of “noise + action + mortal everyman = profit”.
This was apparently someone’s attempt at Horus’ story… and he ended up a supporting character to some guy that didn’t even exist in the original works.
The thing is, a lot of people will defend these sort of decisions and make the argument that an audience needs to be able to relate to the protagonist. If you were to make Horus the protagonist of his own story and adapted it closer to the original, no one would be able to relate to that. All other elements of the Bay method aside, people would definitely believe that you’d need someone more human in order to make this story work. And, you know, I think I can see the point there – maybe Horus’ story can’t be adapted in a relatable fashion.
After all, the story of Horus is the story of an anthropomorphized animal of a royal family. Raised in exile after his father, the king, was murdered by his jealous brother to take the throne, Horus grows up far from his homeland as his uncle rules with an iron fist and brings the lands to ruin. Then, Horus, grown up and guided by the spirit of his father, returns to the lands to put a stop to his uncle and retake his throne. None of this is something people could relate to, none of this could be made to work. How could anyone be invested in the central conflict of that story?
Well, shit, never mind.
(I write novels and I’m starting to dabble in screenplays. If I ever make it, and I start to use the Bay method, I ask that those close to me put me out of my misery. Follow me on Twitter! I say things there.)